Monday, August 17, 2015

Disabled Hiker Rule, #4, Research trails...


continued from the above page; RULES OF THE DISABLED HIKER 

4. Research Trails, So You Know Your Hike Is Across Terrain That Matches Your Ability.


The importance of researching the trails you intend to hike cannot be overstressed. I learned the hard way!  In my early 20s I took my first backpacking trip. One that ensured that I would never again be so foolish as to set out without thoroughly researching the trails myself. First, to be sure of where you are going, regardless of whoever is leading you.  And secondly, so you know that your hike will be across terrain you are capable of traversing in the first place.  Personal knowledge of terrain types, trailheads, watering holes and springs, and a host of other things are essential to a fun and successful backpacking experience.

My friend Nick and I worked together; I’d known Heath much longer.
When we first talked about backpacking, we learned that Heath was the only one who had any experience at all: Cub-Scouts. And none of us owned any backpacking gear.   However, Heath suggested a buddy who’d boasted of being a guide and taking people on the Appalachian Trail before. We agreed, so with all good intentions Heath contacted this old friend. 

For all intents and purposes here we will call him John.  John met with us briefly once to make sure we had the right equipment for the hike. Although basically friendly, John seemed overconfident and a bit full of himself.

Luckily” I was able to borrow a 40-year-old backpack from my father-in-law for the excursion. The straps were no more than rope wrapped in nylon. The hip belt had been discarded and none of the zippers worked, so I created a hip belt out of an old leather belt and put eyelets just behind the zippers on the bags openings and laced them closed like a shoe to keep everything inside.  John told me it would work just fine even after I pointed out the straps. We'll laugh about this again later in our story. 

Heath had converted an old rucksack by simply putting lashing points at various places, allowing him to tie things to the outside. The rucksack itself was not very big and a good portion of what he carried was more on the outside than on the in. Again in this case there was no hip belt, but John assured us this was another great piece of equipment for a weekend hike.

The worst off was my buddy Nick. Nick was not able to find anything that resembled a backpack at all. He could only find an old army duffel bag left over from the Great War... Not the new type of duffel bags that have the double straps on them and the hip belt. Oh no. This was the old-style duffel bag your grandfather used, equipped with a single shoulder strap with a midpoint handle, and literally instilled discomfort just by looking at it.  I thought sure John would red flag the duffel. But he assured us that this was once again acceptable hiking gear. At this we took it on faith that he knew what he was talking about. 

John gave us a quick rundown of our itinerary, as told us to bring a rock hammer to dig fossils that he said were abundant on the top of the mountain. This sounded very odd to me as I knew something about fossil hunting. But we all kept telling ourselves that John was the expert.  He wouldn't steer us wrong, would he?

Among other gear that John seemed strangely happy approving to be divided among our packs included, over 40 pounds of sleeping bags, a full change of clothes for each of us, jackets, our rock hammer and heavy chisel, 200 foot of climbing rope, Three fifth's of assorted alcoholic spirits, 1 gallon of drinking water each, and assorted rain gear, an old World War II canvas tent, two large sheets of plastic, and about 25 to 30 pounds of canned goods, adding "don't forget to bring your toothbrush."

One of the last things John told us was to bring a cooler containing hotdogs to consume the first night and eggs for the following morning. He told us that as we would literally be getting out of the truck and setting up camp, we could hide the cooler at the trail head and retrieve it after the hike was over.  None of us owned a cooler that we wanted to chance leaving in the woods, so we put the food with ice in a 5 gallon spackle bucket that had a well-sealed lid and a single bale handle: a simple alternative we would later thank God we had chosen over a bulkier cooler.

The four of us met at Heath's house at three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Heath lived with his elderly parents only a mile away from the trailhead. Our itinerary was simple enough. We were to be dropped off at the trailhead on Smith Gap Road and spend the night there. The following morning we would hike 3 1/2 miles east to Leroy Smith Shelter and spend the night. Finally Sunday, we would hike 5 miles further east to the town of Wind Gap, where we would call for our ride home. The mileage seemed well within the abilities of our little greenhorn expedition.

As the three of us stood around this pile of ancient, strange and questionable hiking gear, John pulled up and produced this beautiful external frame backpack. I swear we heard angels when he pulled it out and our eyes were blinded by the glare off the aluminum rails that flashed in the sun. And it seemed to weigh almost nothing – and appeared virtually empty even though fully loaded and ready for our expedition. Heath's father offered to transport us in his truck to the top of the mountain, and off we went.

Although I had only the vaguest notion of our itinerary, one thing that stood out was that we were to be dropped off at the top of the mountain where we could literally walk a few feet off the road and set up camp. But words cannot describe the bewilderment on our faces when John abruptly pounded on the side of the truck when we had only reached the bottom of the mountain, and yelled, "Let Us Out Here!"

Questioning this sudden change of plans, John reassured us that he knew a trail that would take us to the top of the mountain as well as cut hours off of the following day’s hike. In 10 minutes we would be setting up camp at the top of the mountain.

We all looked at each other; was John crazy? The trail he pointed to

seemed little more than a game or deer trail. And even though we all stood there with our heads tilted at a 45° angle staring at the top of this mountain, we all shrugged it off figuring that John knew what he was doing. Shaking Heath's father's hand, we sent him on his way.

Once everyone had strapped on their “packs” we decided to take turns carrying the bucket containing the eggs and hotdogs. Heath carried it for the first 100 yards and as the trail got rougher, Heath handed it to me. By the time I had finished my hundred yards with the bucket we were literally bushwhacking our way through the woods and the trail had all but disappeared completely. John had run far ahead of us and we could see him beginning to climb a steep rock face that ascended up into the tree line.

No one mentioned the fact that 10 min. had come and gone several times by the time we started climbing the mountain. It was our hope that Nick would never have to attempt carrying this bucket of food especially considering his ill-suited backpack/duffel bag. And although it should have been John's turn to carry the bucket considering how long and far off wrong he was about the distance to the trailhead, John was nearly out of sight. He never even slowed down to see if we were following him.

Although both Heath and I were only too happy to switch the bucket between the two of us, Nick would hear none of it and insisted it was his turn. Grabbing the bucket in one hand and slinging the duffel bag over the other shoulder, he began to climb.
By this time the three of us all had confirmed doubts about our guide. But it was becoming obvious that only one of us wanted to catch up with John, if for no other reason than to throw him down the mountain. Followed closely by an army duffel and a bucket of hotdogs and eggs.

We sent Heath ahead to retrieve John, who sensed how angry we were, no doubt from the endless stream of expletives emerging from the valley below. For the rest of the climb John would only wait until we were within eyesight through the trees above before resuming his ascent.

After Nick had begun climbing with the bucket of food he refused to allow Heath or I to relieve him, stating that only John could relieve him. The higher we climbed the angrier Nick got. The steeper the climb got, the angrier Nick got. And as John kept himself out of reach, it deepened Nick's desire to catch him.  Nick and I both worked in construction, so neither one of us were strangers to hard work under extreme temperature and conditions. But looking back on it now, I can only imagine where Nick drew the strength to haul that duffel and bucket up that rock face.  Clearly Nick was going to suffer the most for John's lack of experience and honesty. First, because of that duffel bag. Secondly, because of how much it weighed. Thirdly, for making us climb the whole mountain when we could've been dropped off at the trailhead. And last, because of that damn bucket.
By the time I'd reached the top of the mountain, the shoulder straps on my pack had raised blisters. By the time Nick reached the top the duffel’s single shoulder strap was drawing blood. And our little trip had only just begun.  Before it was over we would all pay dearly and physically for not doing our own homework.

Once we were all at the top, Heath left Nick and I to find John. It was painfully obvious John had no idea where the trail was. Our little climb had taken just over two hours, a difference that Nick was anxious to point out to him…

Once Nick and I had caught our breath, I pulled out my fifth of brandy and we toasted our success as we looked down into the depths from which we had ascended. We could hardly believe our eyes. Even though we could only see a few hundred yards down through the trees, what we saw astounded us. No trail. No path. Just a rock face with trees; the end grade was probably 80% towards the top.
We should have used the climbing rope to belay the packs up steep inclines. But the three of us were too green to know about such things. And our guide John was not only too far ahead of us, it's doubtful he had the experience to even suggest it. Strangely, however, our little victory celebration may have been just what Nick needed to calm down. In spite of the blood and blisters, sore muscles, and sore attitudes, we had actually accomplished something unexpected. Even if it was a bit daunting that none of us even knew exactly where we were.

Soon Heath returned with news that John had found a dirt road that completely caught him off guard. I started thinking I would've gotten better directions by praying to my ancestors. So Nick pipes up and asks Heath, "Does John have a map?" Heath hesitated for a few seconds and then a few seconds longer until Nick repeated: "Does John have a map?" ... Finally Heath explained that John was working from memory.  I got out the bottle of brandy again... This time it went around Twice before heading off to find our wandering and completely lost guide.

Coming up on the dirt road where John waited, we had already decided amongst ourselves that we would not further embarrass him by bringing up his mistakes, but neither would we blindly follow him. 
Reaching the dirt road - two tire ruts running through the woods - it became obvious that we were not going to reach the trailhead that night. It was already starting to get dark so after a short reconnaissance, we decided to camp on the side of the road.
The roadside was covered in grapefruit size rocks that would have made sleeping on the ground impossible had we not been exhausted. Nick and I had decided to share an old World War II two-man shelter that literally only covered us like a pup tent without a floor. Heath and John were sharing a lean-to made from plastic sheeting. Luckily, it didn’t rain that night.

Setting up camp, Heath confided that our guide had brought almost nothing with him: just a sleeping bag, a single can of soup, a toothbrush, and that shiny backpack. No wonder John had run up the mountain at such an incredible speed.  His pack probably weighed all of 5 pounds. Sheepishly, Heath added that John was wondering when we were going to start cooking the hotdogs. Without missing a beat, Nick turns to me and sternly states, "No more brandy! I brought whiskey."

As a rule and from that day forward, I can honestly say that I've never been so trusting and naive ever again. Because of this one experience, I'll spend hours on the Internet researching trails, and even at times making my own maps by printing out images from the Internet and then superimposing any additional information I can find onto them.

Maps and knowledge about the trails you would like to hike or backpack, can be obtained in a number a ways. The first and easiest way I've found is to just do a simple Internet search of the trail you intend to hike. Longer trails like the Appalachian Trail, maps can be obtained through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. But smaller trails such as Thunder Swamp, just north of Marshalls Creek PA, are usually state run and maps can be obtained through the state parks department, often for free. 

Happy hiking and stay safe.

by: Terry Craig - The Disabled Hiker ©2015

Assistant Editor - Dave Deubler

Photos by - 
Larry Deitch, Shawn Fernsler, Dawn Craig, &
Terry Craig

Dedicated to my friends at the U.S. Pain Foundation, the Invisible Project, Heroes for Healing, and the Blue 42. You all rock. You all shine. God bless.   

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